A Life of Vivid Beauty — My Dad, Michael Troje
There are some moments in life that are etched so deeply into our memories that recalling them brings them back in all their vivid beauty — the first time my dad saw our first born is one of those memories for me. Newborn Liam was fast asleep in his bassinet when my dad and bonus mom, Margy, arrived at our house to meet him. My dad tiptoed to our bedroom, peeked his head around the doorway, got the most amazing look of wonder on his face, and whispered “he’s just so beautiful!” Love at first sight — total, complete, and unconditional. It was the same with our daughter when she was born, and with our youngest son. My father gave himself over to our children absolutely and without hesitation.
Now our children are 16, 13, and 10. Throughout their lives, all over the world, my father showered them with adoration, indulgences, his infectious laughter, his offbeat sense of humor, and complete devotion. Which is why, when Eric and I had to break the news to our children that their grandpy had Stage 4 metastatic pancreatic cancer, they were gutted beyond words. They sobbed, talked about how unfair it was because he was supposed to be there to watch them grow, to be proud of how they lived their lives. They always wanted him to be proud of them, and he always was. They said how he was more like a second father then a grandpa, how lucky they were to have such a grandpa.
Shortly after, we flew home to spend time with my dad because we knew, more likely than not, he would not make it until our regular summer-long visit. We had a week and a half of poker, Monopoly, Scrabble, laughter, and stories — my dad, very weak by this point, even mustered enough strength to play one last round of soccer outside with our Ry. Eric and the kids left Easter Sunday, I stayed on, afraid to leave because I knew if dad passed without my being there I would not be able to bear it.
April 24 arrived, our home was bustling with family and friends sitting with dad, putting food out for everyone, cleaning, laughing, and sharing stories of their time with dad. By this point he was sleeping most of the time, but he did have some moments of lucidity — smiling to greet people before drifting off again. My sister and two of her boys arrived around midnight, having decided to come home from St. Louis, where they live. The boys visited a little with their grandpy before turning in for the night.
My sister, Tiff, myself, and Margy, sat around dad’s bed chatting and laughing as we do. We talked about memories we had and vacations we took and things dad had done in his life. We’d been a family since Tiff was three and I was seven, so our memories were of a lifetime together. Dad’s breathing had been ragged all day, which was new and worrying. Around 2:45 in the morning of April 25 something about dad’s breath changed, pullng the three of us even nearer to him. As his breath changed even more, becoming increasingly labored, we told him how much we love him, stroked his arms, said it was okay for him to let go. He passed peacefully, surrounded by his three girls. I laid my head on his arm and sobbed — suddenly feeling very much like a lost little girl. The three of us believe very strongly that dad waited for us all to be together again, knowing then that we would care for each other in our grief, before he passed. Even in his death his priority was his family — which makes sense because that’s how he lived his life.
My whole life my dad loved me unconditionally, nurturing who I was instead of trying to shape me into someone who I wasn’t (as parents often seem to do with their children). Rather than try to tame my wild nature he constantly encouraged me to fly freely, to follow my heart, to follow my own moral compass. This was how his mother was with him — rather than try to tame his wild nature she encouraged it. She nurtured his soul with unconditional love and devotion. And he became an amazing man who, without exaggeration, changed lives all over the world through his advocacy, innovation, and devotion to social justice.
My father, in turn, gave me the same unconditional love and support, and that is something we give to our children. When people tell us how incredible our kids are, how we must be such good parents, I tell them it’s not us, it’s just who our kids are — we just let them fly free and be who they are, the same my dad did with me and his mom did with him. What a tremendous legacy.
It’s been two weeks since dad’s passing and we are still a family in shock. Dad truly was larger than life, and what his loss means to me is something I can’t yet articulate. Maybe one day I’ll be able to but right now I just know I feel so blessed to have been so loved by such a man, so blessed that my kids were so loved by him, so blessed that he loved Eric like a son. This is a singular loss and I’m just starting to take it in. Right now I only know that our lives have an enormous hole in them. I’m trying to fill it with memories and gratitude, but really I’d just like to hug my dad one last time.
One night, shortly before he passed away, I went into his bedroom just to see how he was, he was in pain. I stroked his hair, leaned my head on his chest, he wrapped his arms around me while I cried. I said “I love you, dad, so much” and he, through his pain and his tears, said “I love you so much, I love you more than the whole world.” So like my dad to comfort me while he was so close to death. Even when he was so sick he would hug me, tell me he loved me, and say “nighty night” before bed. Always “nighty night.” One night, after his death, I said to him in my head “night, dad” and I heard, clear as day “nighty night.” Nighty night, dad, I love you more than the world.
A lot of people have asked us for copies of the words I said for dad at his ceremony, so I’m including them below, as well as a link to his obituary, which will give those who didn’t know him an idea of the kind of man he was, and why our world is so much richer for his having been in it — even if he was taken far too soon.
My father was a warrior — not symbolically but truly. Decades ago, he became a champion –for LGTBQ people, domestic abuse survivors, refugees, people battling mental illness, women, and, especially, children. My father had a concrete sense of right and wrong, and he was driven by a passion to act — regardless of personal consequences. This belief in justice and action was a gift given to him by his brother, Bernie, who fostered in my father a profound sense of the importance of fighting for justice, and who was a hero and mentor to my dad. In turn, my father taught me, and my sister, Tiff, to always fight for what is right, to look out for others, to know that we can make a difference. And he told me countless times if I ever got arrested for something in which I believed that he would bail me out. The strange thing is, being my father’s daughter (and therefore an absolute “take it to the mat or don’t bother to do it at all” rebel) I tried my hardest to get arrested. It’s quite possible I’m the only daughter to be disappointed in herself for not getting arrested, but I could never disappoint my dad — as long as I stayed true to myself. I remember chatting about the future with him when I was a teenager and he said “I don’t care what you do as long as you’re happy.” Years later, I became a stay at home mom — and got a fair amount of grief for my decision from some of my fellow feminists. But, my biggest supporter was my dad. He told me that feminism (which he’d been fighting for for decades) wasn’t just about women working outside the home, it was about ensuring that women’s choices belonged to them. “Your life is yours and nobody else’s.” THAT was the message I got from my dad. Be independent. Be fierce. Be a warrior. Be true to who you are. And love unconditionally.
When dad met our first baby, Liam, it was love at first sight — and that happened with each of his grandchildren. My dad was, by far, not only one of the most indulgent grandfathers but also one of the most dedicated. No matter where we lived in the world — from Africa to Europe to Central America — he was there for long and regular visits, and always so thrilled to be with his babies. Saying goodbye after each visit was heartbreaking for him — and, Margy would joke, not that easy on her either, because the grandkid withdrawal for dad was fierce.
But, of course, Margy was fine with that because it only demonstrated what a profoundly devoted family man he was. Margy, I want to take a moment to thank you for being the love of his life. I am so grateful to you for making my dad so happy. It means the world to me to know that he had, for so long, your tenderness, joy, humor, and deep love.
Though he was taken from us far too soon, he lived an incredibly full life. His irreverent sense of humor, which he maintained to the very end — even saying “Mellow Yellow” was his new theme song because he was so jaundiced — his infectious laughter, his passion, his incredible intelligence, his love of books, his unstoppable spirit, and his passion for travel and adventure. All of this and more made him the man he was, and wove an intricate web of people all over the globe who adore him. Which brings me to all of you, his family and friends, whom he has always cherished and who went so far above and beyond during his illness. You were so vital to his life, and many of you gave yourselves over to joining him, in a way, on his final journey. Thank you all, from the bottom of my heart, for being a part of him.
And then there was his biking. Even when he was so sick, he would proudly pronounce how many miles he had on his favorite bike — 56,800 and change. The day after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, less than 2 months ago, he biked 30 miles — nothing, not even terminal cancer, could stand in between him and his bike. We used to spend a lot of time in the home kitchen, drinking coffee, talking about his biking and my running. I GOT his obsession for his bikes and trails because I have the same obsession for my shoes and trails. So, when he no longer could bike, my heart broke for him, because biking was so integral to his spirit and to his love of life. He loved to go fast and he loved to go far, and not being able to do that was painful.
But now he’s free, and I’m positive he’s already back on that bike. The disease in life that caused him so much physical and mental agony no longer torments him. Now he can jump on his bike and instantaneously be on his favorite trails — Lake Minnetonka, Lake Riley, along the banks of the Mississippi. My dad loved adventure, and he embraced life with a fire few could match. And, at the door of death, he embraced the certainty that he was between worlds with graciousness, with empathy for those who love him, with dignity, and with humor.
The day of dad’s passing a good friend of mine messaged me and told me to tell her the minute we spotted a cardinal. “Funny you should say that,” I said, “we saw one this morning on our back wall, which is weird because we never see cardinals here.” She then told me that cardinals accompany the souls of those who have passed but who want to return to tell their loved ones that they are okay, that they are free. So fly free, dad, fast on your trails, ready for new adventures, and with the knowledge that we carry your legacy in our hearts and in our actions and that, every moment of every day, we are grateful for you. We love you, now and for always.
Obituary for dad